Possibility dogs

Charleson - Possibility dogsPUBLISHING YEAR: 2014

SUMMARY: 

In Possibility Dogs, Susannah Charleson sets out to find out all about he world of service dogs, with a focus on psych dogs. She also talks of her project for recruiting shelter dogs for the task.

AUDIENCE: Most every one, from psych dog professionals or handlers to the wide public wanting to hear about psych dogs from the horse’s mouth.
01 OwnerREVIEW 

The author: Susannah Charleson is a broadcast radio writer and the author of two best selling books: Possibility dogs (on Psych assistance dogs) and Scent of the missing (on Search-and-Rescue dogs). Her rich real-life experience transpires from every word in her books: she is a Search-and-Rescue handler, former pilot, a broadcast journalist, serial dog adopter and the founder of the highly respected possibilitydogs.org – an organisation facilitating the conversion of shelter dogs into service dogs. Susannah Charleson also shares her episodic struggles with mental and physical health, which is probably what got her the flair and respect with which she talks about the service dog handlers.

Style and contents: The book was suuuuuch a smooth read. It had a lively, gritty, intimate feel to it that kept you flicking to the next page. Reading it felt like listening to This American Life (a non-fiction radio show following real people with their real stories). Let’s put it that way: it was so good barely slept in two days because I just couldn’t put it down.

In Possibility Dogs, Susannah Charleson goes behind the scene of the world of assistance dogs, and draws intimate portraits of the dogs’ handlers, trainers, and recruiters.

On the human side: She paints rich before/after portraits of the psych dog handlers, sharing their crippling struggles and the experience of training, caring for, and relying on, a service dog. The portraits were emotionally charged without falling into sensationalism. Some were heart-wrenching: take the agoraphobic handler who can’t leave the house, or the one whose obsessive-compulsive behaviour used to completely take over their life, or the one who can’t lose sight of the house for fear of another fainting and disorientation attack. We break the wall of abstraction to share the daily struggles of living and breathing individuals through, in their own words.

On shelter and temperament testing: Susannah Charleson then takes the reader through a sobering tour of the world of shelter dogs and its exhausted professionals and relentless challenges. True to self, she draws a rich portrait of the human side of dog rescue, but doesn’t fall into cynicism or sensationalism. She also shares her (at-the-time embryonnic) project to recruit some rescues into service dog training. On the technical front, her coverage of temperament testing was spot on. It would have been written a behaviour professional.

On dogs: Susannah Charleson only covers the stories of legitimate service dogs who are fully trained, licensed and recommended by mental health professionals. She makes the reader realize the incredibly ambitious task of training a functional service dog, and explains her journey training her own rescue dog in some of these tasks. She also doesn’t fall into the trap of many people involved with service dogs: disregarding the dogs’ welfare for the benefit of the human handler’s. The book approaches the dogs and their emotional suitability for the job with every bit as much respect as she tackled the human half of the duo.

Possible improvements: At a push, it could have done with a clearer structure between the different sections, and chapter names in the pages’ headers. But really, it’s not meant to be reference material, so I am really splitting hair here.

The gems: So many turns of phrases were simply beautiful. Here are some extracts:

  • “Then juice Box started going to school with her. He couldn’t be a bigger, hairier beacon that something’s wrong with her, and at first she dreaded that, but Kristin says people at school were so interested in him that she was off the hook. they still stared, but instead of staring at her, they smiled at him, and then at her, like she was his friggin’ posse – she laughs – and that became a sort of way back in to normal” (p. 147)
  • “Meds he had and meds he took and they probably made a difference. But in solid, undemanding, un-fanciful Merlin, Gene began to make his way free.” (p. 76)
  • “and then came her smart, verbal husky, who loved her straightaway and was happy to learn his “tricks.” He is happy to be with her and very glad to intercede, to block her from the window and “let her have it” in the long-winded, poetic garble that is typical of his breed” (p. 195)

The verdict: It’s hard to believe that someone can get the professional side so right (on training, shelters and testing) AND hit the nail on the head on the human side too. A very enriching read indeed, not only about psych service dogs but also the human half of the duo.

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Author: Charleson Susannah
Genre: interviews
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